As an entertainment company, A24 has produced plenty of stunning movies that have had legs during awards season. The studio is behind award winning dramas like Room and Moonlight, and it looks like this year’s Oscar hopeful is Trey Edward Shults’s Waves. The family drama made its rounds at various film festivals this fall, building anticipation before it hit theaters, and the movie doesn’t disappoint when it comes to quality and emotional impact.
Trey Edward Shults is best known for his psychological horror It Comes At Night, and his latest story centers on the Williams family — made up of parents Ronald and Catharine (Sterling K. Brown and Hamilton‘s Renee Elise Goldsberry), their high school senior son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and his younger sister Emily (Lost in Space‘s Taylor Russell). The family seems to have it all, until tragedy strikes and sends them into darkness, grief, and doubt.
Waves director Trey Edward Schults crafted a sensory experience that will keep you captivated.
The first act of Waves quickly establishes a specific visual language, and it’s one that should keep audiences invested throughout the film’s 135-minute runtime. Trey Edward Shults focuses on Tyler’s story to start, as he trains for his senior wrestling season. Tyler is pushed physically and mentally by his father Ronald, who requires his family to be extraordinary. The cinematography is in constant motion, almost as if Schults wanted Tyler’s story to feel like one long shot. In this way, we see how dizzying the young adult’s life is, and just how high the stakes are. When a tragedy strikes, no one is ever the same.
While Waves is very much rooted in realism, Trey Edward Shults sometimes takes the movie into the fantastic. Bright and beautiful hues fill select scenes, creating waves of color. While the film’s title can relate to a variety of the movie’s dramatic themes, there does seem to be a synergy with the film’s visuals. What’s more, Shults provides the film a cyclical aesthetic, with certain images repeated throughout the feature. Shots that are established in Tyler’s story are parallel to what his sister Emily goes through. Each one is full of purpose, and truly pays off.
The Waves cast offers stellar performances, especially Sterling K. Brown and Taylor Russell.
The action of Waves really kicks into high gear once the aforementioned tragedy happens. Tyler’s story goes down an unexpectedly dark path. The situations presented in Waves feel impossible to grapple with, commenting on subjects like abortion, toxic masculinity, and even the legal system. This gives plenty of fodder for the actors to mine for emotional scenes, and every single member of the cast delivers.
Taylor Russell’s performance as Tyler’s sister Emily is layered and complex, and every scene opens up the character to the audience. She’s got a particularly strong scene partner with This Is Us standout Sterling K. Brown, who goes from a semi-villain to the most sympathetic character in the cast.
Hamilton actress Renee Elise Goldsberry has been getting a ton of film work lately, and Waves is arguably her best performance to date. Also notable in the cast are Lucas Hedges, who plays Emily’s boyfriend and Euphoria standout Alexa Demie also has a strong turn as Tyler’s girlfriend, Alexis.
Waves perfectly pivots between each member of the family, leading to surprising emotional revelations
It shouldn’t be spoiled exactly what the family tragedy is, but there’s a massive tonal and narrative shift that occurs halfway through Waves. The story pivots away from Tyler, and Emily becomes the surprising true protagonist of the movie. While the first half of the movie is completely focused on Tyler’s perspective, Emily’s story includes the experience of her parents, as well as her new boyfriend.
In this way, each of the characters is truly fleshed out. Each emotional revelation is earned by the audience. Trey Edward Shults methodically exposes the hurt and pain from Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry’s characters. Lucas Hedges’ Luke is one of the most surprising characters to develop throughout the course of the film. While he’s basically in the background during Tyler’s story, he becomes a major presence when he begins dating Emily. Shults doesn’t simply make him the supportive boyfriend, but gives him his own family issues and trauma to explore.
Waves is a stunning and exhausting piece, which is directed and acted flawlessly. While the experience as audience member might be grueling and you should definitely bring your tissues, director Trey Edward Shults manages to craft a story that lands on love and hope. Be warned: tear-jerking scenes will come in (you guessed it) waves.
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